Al Wasl Plaza: the heart and soul of Expo 2020 Dubai

Interview with Gordon Gill, Design Partner at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

Al Wasl Plaza: the heart and soul of Expo 2020 Dubai

Bureau International des Expositions

Al Wasl Plaza, designed by Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, will be the centrepiece of Expo 2020 Dubai. With one year until the opening of the World Expo, Gordon Gill explains what Al Wasl Plaza is, and shares his thoughts on how this central hub will make a dramatic impression on visitors to Expo 2020 Dubai and have a lasting impact on Dubai.

Expo pavilion, public park, venue? What is Al Wasl Plaza?

Gordon Gill: Al Wasl Plaza embodies the theme of Expo 2020 Dubai “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future”. The name in Arabic, literally means ‘the connection’, and its location is the centre of the Expo site, with all roads leading to, and connecting to, Al Wasl. In keeping with the theme of connection, Al Wasl Plaza literally constitutes the hub of the Master Plan of the entire site, and is the heart and soul of the Expo.

In terms of its composition, the 67-metre high trellis is what steals the show, but Al Wasl Plaza is far more than what meets the eye. The Plaza itself is created by a garden and the five buildings that surround it: three office buildings and two hotels. While these buildings are the supporting cast for the public garden and the trellis, the project is impossible to achieve without them: they contribute to what Al Wasl is from an experiential and an urbanistic standpoint.

"Al Wasl is a new typology: an active, living, public space"

Therefore, Al Wasl is not just buildings, and is much more than a grand plaza. Al Wasl is a new typology: an active, living, public space. When we designed it, we did not imagine an object, but rather a space for people to gather together, for children to play and for everyone to enjoy. Al Wasl is an urban room; a room that offers a spectacle of architecture and experience.

As a place, Al Wasl is designed to enhance community life twenty-four hours a day. It is the intersection of day and night, nature and technology, space and architecture; a seamless continuum of experience. The fabric of the trellis, with its fibre-glass content, has the ability to transmit light, which means that any image being projected inside is visible outside and draws attention throughout the neighbourhood and across the City. The Community at large becomes the audience for this stage. This alters the character of the development as Al Wasl Plaza is the beacon, the show and the symbol of its Community.

 

How is Al Wasl Plaza an experience in itself?

Gordon Gill: Al Wasl is more than a landmark or a centrepiece, it is a lively public space that is the central anchor for the Master Plan. Whether during Expo 2020 Dubai or in its legacy phase within District 2020, Al Wasl is a three-dimensional experience that inspires, and entertains, educates and broadcasts.

Firstly, Al Wasl Plaza is a shared, communal space. Its lush garden, designed with a wide variety of native fauna and flora, is a place not only for contemplation, but for engagement and connecting with nature. Due to a number of technical features including a lowered landform, the trellis shade and water features, the plaza is an oasis which has its own optimised microclimate, lowering the average temperature by around 9ºC and enhancing the comfort. Surrounding the garden, will be cafés and retail space, giving life and activity to the plaza, while also contributing to the economic sustainability of the neighbourhood.

"At night, the trellis becomes a vast canvas: a 360º projection surface"

During the day, the trellis provides shade. At night, it becomes a vast canvas: a 360º projection surface (the largest in the world) that draws attention not just from within, but from across the Expo site, across the neighbourhood and across the City. This technological transformation – made possible by light emitted from projectors and a thin membrane that allows the projection to be seen from both - Inside and outside- will create a unique immersive experience for visitors and residents alike. The variety of dazzling shows that can be staged will mean that rooftops, hotel rooms and other vantage points will become coveted spaces in the evening. For those traveling by highway or by air over Dubai, they too will be able to see this amazing spectacles – it is a true centre of gravity.

 

Al Wasl Plaza is often described as the ‘crown jewel’ of Expo 2020 Dubai. How did Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill set about designing this new typology?

Gordon Gill: A number of steps led toward the creation and development of the Al Wasl project. Initially, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill was working on the overall site Master Plan, with a particular focus on the Sustainability and Legacy of the future Community. In doing so, we were invited to take a look at the centre piece: Al Wasl. We had enlightening and engaging discussions with the Expo Leadership and it was clear from the outset that the Organisers had a very strong desire and a clear vision for a unique sense of community with a special sense of place.

As the centrepiece of a World Expo, we knew that the result had to be extraordinary. As a public venue that was designed to remain relevant after the event, the conversation revolved around its legacy for the people, the neighbourhood, the community, and Dubai.

This required an idea and an architecture that had utility and beauty during the Expo and beyond; a project that could be appreciated for it's great positive impact of the Expo event and to the future Dubai community. The idea of an open public garden, not existent in modern Dubai, seemed to respond to a real social need and to embraced an opportunity for positive social Impact.

"In addition to being an amazing structure, Al Wasl Plaza was designed as a commentary on public space"

We thought that the best legacy would be to create a formal public space, a park framed by the buildings that surround it.

In order to make the park more comfortable and to extend its use, we wanted to shade it. In the process of doing this, we realised that the trellis and its beautiful veiled surface could come to life when bathed by the sunlight and also through the night-time projections, transforming and connecting the relationship between the gardens and the public space during the day and at night. This community venue could thus become educational, spiritual, and beautiful – constantly changing and adapting over time.

Our process was deeply rooted in how Al Wasl could serve the people of Dubai, with the idea of creating a type of urban venue that Dubai has not had before. In addition to being an amazing structure, Al Wasl Plaza was designed as a commentary on public space. Dubai has gone through a lot of transformations over the years, from being a place that has often been transient to a home where communities are formed, where people work, learn and play. This idea of community has taken hold, and Al Wasl's legacy will be to serve as the symbol of the union of the local and global Community that gathers and passes through its gardens and its arches.

How important was the legacy in the project?

Gordon Gill: As we did for Expo 2017 in Astana, Legacy is fundamental to the Expo 2020 Dubai project. We always understood that Al Wasl was not just for the Expo. It was a gift to the world and had to be conceived as a permanent and sustainable feature. Our focus was to transform the event Master Plan into a vibrant district with all the necessary elements for a community.

The project demanded that we create a space for public gathering; a place that could be used by visitors during the Expo, and by residents, employees, and tourists in the legacy phase. The notion of the lively public square was important to the culture in Dubai and we wanted to renew with this tradition by creating a unique urban room that uses dedicated design techniques to maximise comfort and encourage social interaction.

"The buildings surrounding the Plaza are exemplary in the Middle East in terms of their energy, carbon and economic sustainability"

Planning for the legacy also meant looking at the sustainability of the development and ensuring that the neighbourhood continues to thrive after the Expo. We studied sustainability in terms of energy and water use with the buildings surrounding the Plaza being exemplary in the Middle East in terms of their energy, carbon and economic sustainability. The office buildings will embody the innovative legacy of the Expo by reflecting its subthemes of opportunity, mobility and sustainability with commercial space that is smart, connected and sustainable. The office and the hotel rooms look onto the garden, creating prized viewpoints that are certain to draw interest.

Al Wasl was envisioned to serve as a catalyst for development; increasing land value and creating the identity of an "urban destination" to attract growth and Investment in its surrounding parcels. It Is critical for sustainable strategies to also understand market strategies for the good of the environment and the community.

What makes Al Wasl firmly anchored in Dubai?

Every project we do is firmly rooted in its culture, it's place and it's environment.

For Al Wasl, the geometric reference of the concept was the 4,000-year-old ring found in the desert at Sarouq Al Hadeed, which inspired the Expo 2020 logo.

As much as the design of the physical form of Al Wasl was of key importance, so was its resulting shadow and filtered sunlight. The casting of dappled light and shade is essential to its experience: at all times of day you can see a series of solid shaded rings and halos of light on different surfaces, on the park and on the people under the trellis. It is a vibrant dynamic environment. As sun moves over the sky, so does the rich composition of shades in different patterns and tones; it Immerse users into the artistic expression and transformative power of nature.

"Al Wasl is a gift to the world and was conceived as a permanent and sustainable feature"

In this sense, we can say that the architecture is a true reflection of the people, the culture and the environment of the country and region, with the simple method of using shade from the sun as a core aspect of the final result.

The idea of a respite urban garden enhancing public life in a desert environment; and the idea of shading this open room with a fabric veil that can be projected on during the night is not only anchored in Dubai's cultural and environmental context but also in its ambitious vision of creating the future. The project relates to the history and life of the city and also takes its position in Dubai's future as the host of the World Expo. Al Wasl will serve to extend the memory of Expo 2020 Dubai and to impact the lives of all those who visit the Expo and the City for generations to come.

 

This interview was realised with the cooperation and support of the whole team at Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, particularly Alejandro Stochetti and Robert Forest.

 

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